Peacebuilding and the War on Terror: The U.S. Drone Program

March 2013
This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
"Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct. Even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war." — U.S. President Barack Obama, Nobel Peace Prize Speech

When accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, President Obama compellingly argued that the United States must be a "standard bearer" when fighting its wars. In the wake of the Bush administration's torture policies and unilateral war in Iraq, the world welcomed this statement as a commitment to the values of international law. Yet today, that commitment is called into question by President Obama's targeted killing program. Since 2002, thousands of "designated foreign terrorists" listed by the U.S. government and non-listed civilians have been killed by drone strikes. While the Obama administration argues that drone strikes are necessary to fight against an enemy that follows no rules, the drone program has caused a strong backlash both abroad and in the United States.

In its fight against terrorism, the Obama administration believes targeted killings are required. However, while targeted killings may be a legitimate short-term solution, drone strikes risk alienating local populations and creating a culture of violence in the long-term. Simply killing the top-level leadership of al-Qaeda will not destroy the threat of terrorism.[1] Instead of encouraging a more holistic response to terrorism, the U.S. drone program reduces the U.S. response to "killing the bad guys."

In its current state, the U.S. drone policy does little to build peace and may in fact contribute to recruitment. As a result, the U.S. public cannot be complacent about allowing drone strikes to continue unabated. The Obama administration should curb its targeted killings and overhaul the drone program. Even beyond simply fixing the drone program, the United States must also review its long-term strategy in the War on Terror.

The U.S. Drone Program — What the Administration Claims

U.S. policymakers are attracted to drones for their unique contributions to warfare and weaponry. Unmanned aerial systems, known commonly as drones, have three main purposes: surveillance, aid, and targeted killings.[2] Drones provide important advantages over manned aircraft, distant missile strikes, and special operations raids. Drones provide surveillance and are able to hover above targets for up to 14 hours. Drones can be called off at the last minute, particularly when it is clear that civilians are in the strike zone. The radius of a drone strike is 15-20 meters, resulting in less collateral damage than typical air strikes.[3] Most importantly for U.S. policymakers, drone strikes provide an option to kill individuals without risking the lives of U.S. soldiers. As a result, drones conduct 95% of all targeted killings.[4] The United States continues to invest in this technology, with the military increasing its drone inventory from 50 in 2001 to 7500 in 2012 (5% of which can be armed),[5] while spending nearly $4 billion.[6]

For years, the Obama administration did not acknowledge that the program even existed. However, in response to reports that the CIA had used drones to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who was involved in strategic planning for al-Qaeda, the administration launched a campaign in 2012 to explain to the U.S. public why it conducts drone strikes.

The administration points to the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), a joint resolution passed by Congress in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, as its justification for the drone program. The resolution allows the president to:

"use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons."[7]

President Obama and his administration argue that the AUMF justifies attacks on individuals who are part of al-Qaeda or associated forces on "hot" battlefields like Afghanistan. Since the AUMF is a declaration of war against terrorists, not specific nations, there is no geographical limit to its application. The administration also argues that under Article 51 of the UN Charter, the United States has a right to respond to attacks in self-defense. The Obama administration also points to the laws of armed conflict and their principles of necessity, proportionality, distinction, and humanity to defend its arguments.[8]

The administration adamantly claims that it is selective with its drone strikes. Harold Koh states that strikes are limited to "high-level al-Qaeda leaders who are planning attacks."[9] President Obama himself said that individuals must be involved in an operational plot against the United States for strikes to be conducted. John Brennan, as the former counter-terrorism advisor, has been the most vocal on the administration's reasoning. In April, 2012, Brennan argued that "we're not going to rest until al-Qaeda the organization is destroyed and is eliminated from areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Africa, and other areas. We're determined to do that."[10]

The Obama administration has stated that its preference for using drones is based on the ability of drones to be targeted. "It's this surgical precision - the ability with laser-like focus to eliminate the cancerous tumor called an al-Qaida terrorist, while limiting damage to the tissue around it that makes this counterterrorism tool so essential," says John Brennan.[11] President Obama claimed that "drones have not caused a huge amount of civilian casualties."[12] Yet the administration claims that whenever it is possible, it aims to take custody of terrorists in order to obtain information, rather than engage in targeted killings.[13] According to the administration, drone strikes are a last resort and simply one tool in the fight against terrorism.[14]

The Problem — Reports from the Ground

While the administration claims that its program is limited, targeted, and in accordance with international law, the reality on the ground suggests a different story. There are obvious limitations inherent in the use of drones that challenge the administration's claims on its program. First, the precision of drones is only as good as the intelligence the administration receives. If surveillance is misleading, or local contacts are accidentally wrong or purposefully deceiving, strikes can fail in their purpose of targeting top-level operatives. Second, in order to conform to state sovereignty principles, the United States depends on host-state support (guaranteed often through extensive side payments and foreign aid). Third, since the drone program is kept secret ostensibly to protect national security interests, rumors of attacks cannot be confirmed or denied. As a result, the United States is blamed for attacks that kill civilians that may be committed by other countries. Finally, the international and domestic response to the U.S. program could restrict their use in the future.[15]

Because of the program's secrecy, it is difficult to obtain information in order to assess the impact and scope of drone attacks.[16] The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) reports that from June 2004 through mid-September 2012, drone strikes killed 2,562-3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children.[17] Others estimate that the total number of U.S. drone strikes is 411 and that 3,430 people have been killed, including 401 civilians (or 12% of those killed).[18] While these numbers are relatively low and difficult to corroborate because of classified information, they are not the "almost zero" the administration claims.

These numbers suggest that the United States is not only targeting high-level al-Qaeda leadership, but lower-level operatives as well. However, who is being targeted and the criteria for a strike are unavailable to the general public. Without access to this information about the program, the U.S. public is expected to put its trust in U.S. officials who have "more information"; this leaves out possibilities for adequate public accountability. In recent months, this has caused particular concern for the U.S. public because of reports that three U.S. citizens, including one sixteen-year-old boy, have been targeted.[19] Drone strike victims have no right of appeal when they are added to the list, and since lists are not public, civilians do not know who is targeted.

Controversy over the drone strikes stems not just from who is targeted, but how the strikes themselves are conducted. "Signature strikes" are one of the most controversial policies. David Sanger and Eric Schmitt of The New York Times write that "instead of having to confirm the identity of a suspected militant leader before attacking, signature strikes allowed American operators to strike convoys of vehicles that bear the characteristics of Qaeda or Taliban leaders on the run, for instance." Another practice with controversial implications is that of "double hit," where the targeted site is hit multiple times in quick succession. There is evidence that this practice has killed first responders and other civilians who rush in to rescue survivors.[20]

Furthermore, there is a marked difference between the use of drones in conflict zones, such as Afghanistan, and the use of drones in communities outside of war zones, such as Pakistan. In Afghanistan, rebel fighters were responsible for 81% of civilian casualties, while Afghan and NATO forces caused 8%.[21] In 2012, there were 109 fewer civilians killed in Afghanistan than the year before, when the numbers killed from both drones and airstrikes are combined.[22] While the war in Afghanistan was initially guided by the rules of war, today's fight against al-Qaeda using drones is much different.[23]

Global opinion on the U.S. drone campaign shows overwhelming disapproval for targeted killings, particularly in countries where drone strikes are occurring.[24]The Pew Center's global opinion polls show only the United States having a favorable opinion of the program.[25] For example, in Egypt, 89% disapprove and 6% approve. In Pakistan, 83% of the respondents disapproved of drones, but the rest were not familiar with the program.[26] In the United States, 56% approved and 26% disapproved. Those numbers from February 2013 were similar to July 2012, which suggests that recent exposure to the campaign with Brennan's hearing has had very little impact. Support cuts across party lines, with 68% of Republicans, 58% of Democrats and 51% of independents approving.

A Peacebuilder's Perspective

The field of peacebuilding provides a rich history of research and experience to address the implication of drone strikes. Peacebuilders understand that peace requires not just an end to violence, but a stable just peace. Peacebuilders attempt to raise conceptual, analytical and strategic questions to challenge preconceived assumptions about conflict.[27] Local context matters, and the relationships between all parties in a conflict must be nurtured and respected.[28] While the appeal of drones is evident, they are not the solution from this perspective.

From this perspective, peacebuilders should question the Obama administration's policy on drones, as they should critically assess any policy involving targeted killings. Particularly, the public approval of the use of drones in targeted killings amplifies the importance of further analysis.[29] Peacebuilders should question the secrecy that continues to surround the program.[30]

While there are plenty of logistical dilemmas with the use of drones, peacebuilders must also question the entire justification for the "War on Terror."[31] There is no end in sight to this war. While the killing of Osama bin Laden could have been an endpoint, the targeted killings of al-Qaeda members has only perpetuated the war. Even with the upcoming withdrawal from Afghanistan, the administration shows no sign of ending the drone program. Peacebuilders must ask when will this war end, and what does winning look like. The Obama administration's assumption that the AUMF has no geographical limit allows strikes to occur anywhere and for war to continue indefinitely.

If the United States' efforts to fight terrorism are to bring lasting peace, then the overall strategy must be more than simply killing top leaders. At minimum, the Obama administration should adhere to the principle of "do no harm" in terms of its international interventions.[32] Advocates of drones suggest a theory of change that eliminating key leaders will reduce the capacity of terrorist networks, ending the terrorist threat. This theory does not take into account how the deaths of civilians and lack of international legal support contribute to animosity, support imperial narratives, and contribute to recruitment. Counterinsurgency experts focus on economic investment and addressing political grievances as necessary to fighting an insurgency. Every civilian killed "represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement."[33] Former U.S. general Stanley McChrystal argues, "the resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes ... is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who've never seen one or seen the effects of one."[34]

Reports from the ground are of utmost concern for peacebuilders. David Rhodes, a New York Times journalist who was captured by the Taliban and held in Pakistan, described the psychological impact of drones: "The drones were terrifying. From the ground, it is impossible to determine who or what they are tracking as they circle overhead. The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death."[35] An anonymous source from Pakistan said: "When we're sitting together to have a meeting, we're scared there might be a strike. When you can hear the drone circling in the sky, you think it might strike you. We're always scared. We always have this fear in our head."[36] These accounts describe an atmosphere of fear that makes peacebuilding efforts difficult, if not impossible.

Policymakers must also look to the future, when drone use will not be limited solely to the United States. For the foreseeable future, the United States will be the uncontested leader in drone technology. Russia, China, Taiwan, Israel and South Korea are among the 76 states with drone programs.[37] At least a dozen state or nonstate actors are on a trajectory to possess armed drones within the next ten years. The possibility of proliferation of drones in states that may have an interest in attacking the U.S. or its allies requires addressing. A normative framework is necessary as drone strikes become accessible to other nations.


The following recommendations for the U.S. drone program are in no way exhaustive, but are first steps for the Obama administration as it wrestles with this policy and the public reaction to it. They are divided into operational recommendations to apply peacebuilding principles to the program itself, and strategic recommendations to address the normative questions the drone program raises.

  • The Obama administration's policy should match its rhetoric. The administration claims that it is only targeting high-level leaders and avoiding civilian casualties. If the policy did this, there would be fewer strikes and as a result, fewer civilians killed.
  • The process should be transparent. In order to prevent rumors about the drone program and U.S. intentions, the administration should make the process and rationale for a strike clear. Institutionalize the "playbook" (the purported guidelines for a strike) and make it public. After a strike, the reasoning should be released to the general public (removing necessary details from the record to protect security interests).
  • The CIA should be focused on intelligence gathering, not killing. Currently, both the CIA and the Defense Department carry out drone strikes. The president should move all targeted strikes to the Defense Department because its policies are more transparent with specific guidelines. A majority of Americans also support this change.[38] Recent reports show that this change will likely be put into effect by the administration.
  • Explicit consent should be guaranteed from any country where a drone strike is conducted. The Obama administration says that it has received consent from countries through back-door channels.[39] However, in order for state sovereignty to be protected, a country should be required to give explicit consent so that the reasoning for why drone attacks are necessary can be made clear to the general population.
  • End the practice of "signature strikes" and "double hit," in order to protect civilians and prevent targeting the wrong people. When civilians are unintentionally killed, the United States should make recompense to their families.[40]
  • Create a judicial panel to oversee drone strikes. To keep the executive branch accountable, a court to oversee targeted killings would be the most effective. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, which approves surveillance warrants against suspected foreign spies, may serve as a model.[41]


  • The U.S. Congress must hold hearings to assess the AUMF. The American people must challenge the premise of the "War on Terror" and the executive branch must be restricted on this issue. President Obama cannot wage war indefinitely.
  • The Obama administration should take the lead to help formulate international norms on drones through a transparent process with other countries. Drones are here to stay, and there must be a framework agreed upon by nations with drone capabilities.
  • Support and develop other initiatives in fighting terrorism. President Obama has said that drones are simply one tool used in the fight against terrorism. The United States should support local peace initiatives, in particular local law enforcement, to address the threat of terrorism.


President Obama said, "my most sacred duty as commander in chief is to keep the American people safe."[42] The U.S. drone program comes out of that desire, to ensure that there is not another terrorist attack that kills U.S. citizens. Yet that noble desire and sober responsibility has led to hundreds of civilian deaths across the globe and an atmosphere of fear that threatens attempts to build peace. The recommendations of this paper are an attempt to address the U.S. drone program's threat to peace and security while understanding the threats the Obama administration faces. Terrorism is not a disease that is contained once you kill the "infected" people. Fighting terrorism requires a response that gets to the root causes of conflict, and the U.S. drone program not only fails in this attempt, but also hinders other efforts to build lasting peace.


[1] O'Connell, Mary Ellen. "Seductive Drones: Learning from a Decade of Lethal Operations." Journal of Law, Information & Science, 21(2). 2011. 133.

[2] Welsh, Jennifer. "Ethics and Legal Limitations of Drone Warfare Conference." March 20, 2013.

[3] Saletan, William. "Drones, War, and Civilian Casualties: How Unmanned Aircraft Reduce Collateral Damage." Slate Magazine. February 19, 2013. < cles/health_and_science/human_nature/2013/02/drones_war_and_civilian_casualties_how_unm anned_aircraft_reduce_collateral.html>.

[4] Zenko, Micah. Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies. (New York, NY: Council on Foreign Relations, 2013). 8.

[5] Hennigan, R.J. "Pentagon Working with FAA to Open U.S. Airspace to Combat Drones." Los Angeles Times. February 13, 2012.

[6] "Military Weighs Cutbacks, Shifts in Drone Programs." Associated Press. February 11, 2013. < grams/1910463/>.

[7] Grimmet, Richard F. "Authorization For Use Of Military Force in Response to the 9/11 Attacks (P.L. 107-40): Legislative History." CRS Report for Congress. January 16, 2007. < 57.pdf>.

[8] See "Introduction to the Law of Armed Conflict — Basic Knowledge." International Committee of the Red Cross. June 2002. Accessed March 25, 2013. < iles/other/law1_final.pdf>.

[9] Harold Koh. Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law. March 25, 2012.

[10] Interview with John Brennan. This Week with George Stephanopoulos. April 29, 2012.

[11] Brennan, John. "The Ethics and Efficacy of the President's Counterterrorism Strategy," Speech. The Woodrow Wilson International Center. April 30, 2012. < >.

[12] "President Obama's Google+ Hangout." White House. January 30, 2012.

[13] Brennan, John. "Strengthening Our Security by Adhering to Our Values and Laws." Speech. September 16, 2011.

[14] Interview with President Barack Obama. Jessica Yellin. CNN. September 5, 2012. < warfare/?iref=allsearch>.

[15] Zenko, Micah. Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies. (New York, NY: Council on Foreign Relations, 2013).

[16] Sullivan, Margaret. "Questions on Drones, Unanswered Still." The New York Times. October 13, 2012. < till.html?_r=0>.

[17] "Drone Strikes Kill, Maim and Traumatize Too Many Civilians, U.S. Study Says." CNN. September 25, 2012. < m/2012/09/25/world/asia/pakistan-us-drone-strikes>.

[18] Zenko, Micah. Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies. (New York, NY: Council on Foreign Relations, 2013).

[19] Mazetti, Mark, Charlie Savage, and Scott Shane. "Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. Citizen, in America's Cross Hairs." The New York Times. March 9, 2013. < m/2013/03/10/world/middleeast/anwar-al-awlaki-a-us-citizen-in-americas-cross-hairs.html?page wanted=5&partner=rss&emc=rss>.

[20] "Living Under Drones." Stanford/NYU Report. Accessed March 25, 2013. <http://www.livingunderdrones.or g/living-under-drones/>.

[21] UN report, 2012.

[22] Saletan, William. "Drones, War, and Civilian Casualties: How Unmanned Aircraft Reduce Collateral Damage." Slate Magazine. February 19, 2013. < cles/health_and_science/human_nature/2013/02/drones_war_and_civilian_casualties_how_unm anned_aircraft_reduce_collateral.html>.

[23] Falk, Richard. The Great Terror War. (Brooklyn, NY: Olive Branch Press, 2003).

[24] Scahill, Jeremy. "Washington's War in Yemen Backfires." The Nation. Accessed March 24, 2013. <http://www.>.

[25] "Global Opinion of Obama Slips, International Policies Faulted." Pew Global Attitudes Project. Accessed March 25, 2013. < olicies-faulted/>.

[26] Friedersdorf, Conor. "Yes, Pakistanis Really Do Hate America's Killer Drones." The Atlantic. January 24, 2013. < kistanis-really-do-hate-americas-killer-drones/272468/.>.

[27] Lederach, John Paul. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[28] Lederach, John Paul. Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies. (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1997). 38.

[29] O'Connell, Mary Ellen. "Seductive Drones: Learning from a Decade of Lethal Operations." Journal of Law, Information & Science, 21(2). 2011.133.

[30] Currier, Cora. "How the Gov't Talks About a Drone Program It Won't Acknowledge Exists." ProPublica, September 13, 2012. < acknowledge>.

[31] Darby, John. "The Meaning of War." What Is War? An Investigation in the Wake of 9/11. Ed. Mary Ellen O'Connell. (Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill, 2012).

[32] See Mary Anderson's book, Do No Harm, for analysis how international aid can exacerbate conflict.

[33] D. Kilcullen and A. McDonald. "Death From Above, Outrage Down Below." The New York Times. March 17, 2009.

[34] Alexander, David. "Retired General Cautions Against Overuse of Hated Drones." January 7, 2013. < E90608O20130107>.

[35] Rohde, David. "The Drone War." Reuters. January 17, 2012. < dAFL1E8CHCXX20120117>.

[36] "Living Under Drones." Stanford/NYU Report. Accessed March 25, 2013. <http://www.livingunderdrones.or g/living-under-drones/>.

[37] Zenko, Micah. Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies. (New York, NY: Council on Foreign Relations, 2013).

[38] Woolley, Peter J. "Parsing Public Opinion on Drone Warfare." February 22, 2013. < l>.

[39] Memmott, Mark. "U.S. Believes It Has Pakistan's 'Tacit Consent' For Drone Strikes, 'WSJ' Reports." The Two-Way: National Public Radio. September 26, 2012. < 61799390/u-s-believes-it-has-pakistans-tacit-consent-for-drone-strikes-wsj-reports>.

[40] Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World. (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2003).

[41] Fisher, Max. "6 Concrete Policy Ideas for Fixing America's Drone Dilemma." WorldViews. February 6, 2013. < 13/02/06/6-concrete-policy-ideas-for-fixing-americas-drone-dilemma/>.

[42] Interview with President Barack Obama. Jessica Yellin. CNN. September 5, 2012. < warfare/?iref=allsearch>.